Scary hands on glass - Horla
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The scariest book I’ve ever read: The Horla

I’m a horror fan and there’s not much that particularly scares me, but I have a soft spot for a certain short story that gave me many a bad dream as a kid. In our school library, there was a book (the name of which I can’t remember, much though I’ve looked for it) of about eight classic horror short stories. I scarcely remember them now – there was one about a ghost omnibus and one that I now know was M. R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, but I don’t remember the rest – save one, that is. The most terrifying story I’ve ever read – Guy de Maupassant’s ‘The Horla’.

The story takes the form of a journal of an unnamed male narrator. One day, he sees a boat and instinctively waves at it but afterwards, he starts to feel unwell and unusually distressed. Time goes by and he increasingly suffers from illness and nightmares until he eventually decides that he must get away from his house for a while. Much recovered, he returns home, and the feelings resume again. He gradually comes to the conclusion that there is something in the house with him – something that drinks his water and milk at night, which stands near him and which through its presence imprisons him in his own home. The narrator’s sanity is slowly whittled away until he eventually decides he must escape the creature – but how?

The seed is planted and the narrator later builds up a picture through his own experiences with hypnotism and reading scientific journals

As a child, the idea of an invisible monster, one that drains your life and your sanity as you do nothing, and which oppresses you simply by being where you are, was absolutely terrifying. I remember always being frightened by a passage in which the narrator wakes up in terror, feeling a sharp pain on his chest, as if some unseen force is kneeling on him. This shook me up as a kid, to the extent that I tried to avoid falling asleep on my back, just to be safe.

One of the story’s major successes is that we don’t ever learn that much about the creature. The narrator, in his first escape from his house, relaxes in a monastery and enters a discussion about unknown creatures. The seed is planted and the narrator later builds up a picture through his own experiences with hypnotism and reading scientific journals. But the crux of the matter is that we never definitively know what the ‘Horla’ is, or even if there is a Horla at all. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is aptly fitting for this tale: the man reaches the logical endpoint of his haunting and we must ask, as readers, whether he will ever truly escape this terror. That’s a premise that I find really scary – inexorable terror, and the complete inability to do anything about it.

The story is only twenty or so pages long and thus won’t take up too much of your time, so I’d really recommend checking it out. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, focusing only on creating a terrifying atmosphere. You may not be able to see the Horla, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t haunt your dreams for a while.

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